Design leader John Maeda on how to foster creative collaboration on distributed teams

Read more about John Maeda in “Helping Creativity Happen from a Distance.”

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John Maeda has spent the last three years leading Automattic’s design team, and on this episode of the Distributed podcast, he reflects on what he’s learned with our host, Matt Mullenweg. John shares how to facilitate collaborative creativity across a distributed team, explains why smart managers blog (and vlog) prolifically, and discusses how giving and receiving feedback with a spirit of gratitude, humility, and empathy is essential for managers, especially in a distributed context. 

The full episode transcript is below.


MATT MULLENWEG: What did real-time remote collaboration look like 30 years ago, in the primitive era before Slack and Zoom? My guest on this episode of the Distributed podcast knows, because he was there. 

Designer, author, and Automattician John Maeda spent the latter half of the 90s pioneering a new field called computational design at the MIT Media Lab, a legendary sandbox for researchers who wanted to explore and create the future of tech. Computational design was a bold new approach that applied design principles to the creation of hardware, software, and computer networks, and John helped define it from the beginning.

By 1999, John had developed enough of a reputation for Esquire magazine to name him one of the 21 most important people of the 21st century. Wired magazine once said that “Maeda is to design what Warren Buffett is to finance.” 

My company, Automattic, has been lucky to have John working with us for the last few years, and he will be moving to Publicis soon. He’s been leading a team of 70 designers scattered all over the world, and before he left, I wanted to talk to him about what that’s like, so I’m thrilled that he’s able to join me for a discussion about creative collaboration at a distance. 

We are here today with John Maeda, who leads what might be the largest all-distributed design teams, or at least that we know of. He is the author of three books, The Laws of Simplicity, which is actually what introduced me to John’s work, Creative Code, and Redesigning Leadership. And I believe there is a fourth book on the way, is that correct?

JOHN MAEDA: There is. It’s How To Speak Machine. And thanks for having me on.

MATT: Oh, no problem. So your title is Global Head of Computational Design & Inclusion.

JOHN: Mhm, mhm.

MATT: Computational design might be a concept that not that many people are familiar with as well. Tell us about that.

JOHN: Well actually, people ask me about that. That’s why I thought that How To Speak Machine is the first primer on that because when we think about the value of design right now, because of the technologies we use today, it isn’t a picture, it isn’t a clever drawing. If it’s computational, if it’s driven by code, or it’s tied to code, it can achieve scale, it can achieve behavior, it can be interactive. 

If you think of an early computational design system, that would be WordPress. It’s interactive, I can use it as a tool, it’s not like a poster in the MoMA collection, but it’s a usable system that is running with computation. It never gets tired. Want to add a post again? Okay. Want to add another post? Okay. 

So the computational system never gets tired. Whereas we’re in a room with a beautiful wooden table. This table, if we — we wouldn’t want to hurt this table, we don’t own this table, I know — but if we kept hitting at it, it would eventually fracture. It has physical laws. But computational systems behave differently because they are built out of programs.

MATT: Where do humans fit into this?

JOHN: Originally humans and computers interacted, like Hiroshi Ishii’s human-computer interface world.

MATT: Yeah.

JOHN: But now computers and computers interact, as you well know. They’re hanging out together without us, especially with AI. They’re hanging out. Like, “What do you got?” “I got this” or “I got that” “Well give me some of that.” So — 

MATT: I love the concept of the AIs that train against themselves. 

JOHN: Oh those are really cool.

MATT: Like the Alpha Go, [or] the other things where they have this adversarial learning against itself. So it can play hundreds of millions of games in a day.

JOHN: That concept you described used to be science fiction but now, because of the resources we have available to us by the cloud or everything we can buy now, that’s a normal thing. If our raw material has changed then design should have changed too vis-a-vis computer-based systems.

MATT: And has it?

JOHN: It’s trying to. That’s the one thing I’ve realized is so hard — this is across the tech ecosystem — is that there are a lot of designers who came from the past. And so when we look in this room, the person who designed the texture on that wall over there, that’s a kind of design, but it’s less relevant to the design of a new release of a new feature that needs something that actually has to ship right now. 

And the distance between that design and a design that once it’s shipped now has to iterate and improve at a rapid velocity — that’s a different kind of design. I think most of the design, maybe over 90%, is stuck in the old design, not in computational design. So that’s why I wanted to highlight that when I joined your merry band. 

MATT: Let’s say someone is listening to this, a younger person who is not currently in design and wants to go into it, and wants to be in this kind of present or future you’re describing. What should they work on?

JOHN: They should use WordPress. [laughter]

MATT: Okay, so that’s a good start.

JOHN: No, no actually not in that way. I have been using WordPress intensely, over two years now, getting on three, and it has really reminded me how the internet works. It has exposed the messiness of how information is transmitted, how it’s displayed on multiple platforms. 

It’s like people who really love WordPress will hate hearing this but it’s kind of like infants, for them to walk, there is this baby walker thing, I’m not sure if it’s legal anymore, but there’s this thing where the baby can stand up in this walker thing and they can move, they can move around the room and it’s like, “Wow the baby is moving around.”

MATT: It’s like a little circular thing with wheels?

JOHN: A circular thing with wheels on the bottom, exactly.

MATT: I haven’t seen one of those recently but I know what you’re talking about. 

JOHN: They must be illegal now for some dangerous reason. But to me it’s been like a baby walker because — I know a lot of the high tech stuff but I lost sense of the basics in many ways. 

MATT: What are some of those basics that people should be familiar with?

JOHN: The basics are, first of all, collaboration.

MATT: That’s not a basic. That’s hard!

JOHN: Well I mean that’s a basic that comes — if you build software yourself you don’t have to collaborate, right? But by having a distributed system you have to collaborate. So just to get in touch with that, that’s been great.

MATT: What makes you good at collaboration?

JOHN: Listening. I think it’s the number one important thing is listening. What is the saying, two ears, one mouth? So two-to-one? [laughs] 

MATT: But everyone can’t do that at the same time.

JOHN: Oh yeah. 

MATT: Sometimes it’s going to be impossible?

JOHN: Yeah. The collaboration thing is key, the listening part. The second thing is being technically facile. Being able to write poetry in code. I think for a long time, because I was in the classical design world where coding is bad, like coming back into, via Kleiner Perkins and eBay and Automattic, I’m like, “Oh, coding is good.” And why is it good? It’s because you have agency. What does “creative” mean? It means I’m creating. And if you can code you can do so many things. 

So collaboration is important and to be able to make code is great. The thing I love is how I think of what I’ve learned with WordPress — it’s like Lego. And people will say, “Oh it’s just Lego, it’s not like real wood, real marble, real concrete, it’s just Lego.” But in this world of having an idea, an MVP or an MLVP, you want Lego to be able to make ideas spun up quickly. 

MATT: You brought it full circle. You said community-made platforms win or lose. Some people say that WordPress is not the best CMS, but it does have one of the largest communities and has been the most successful.

JOHN: Yeah.

MATT: You also said that the first thing that designers need to know is collaboration. 

JOHN: Yes.

MATT: So it came to people.

JOHN: Yeah.

MATT: As we said in the intro, you lead definitely one of the larger all-distributed design teams. So if collaboration is important for design and you can’t have everyone in the same room around a whiteboard, what do you do? What are the challenges? And what are some of the benefits?

JOHN: You just reminded me how in the early 2000s or late ’90s I had made this system called Design By Numbers, and it was a system to teach anyone how to code. It was very limited. You could only draw in a 100 by 100 square in black and white. Super constrained system, super easy to teach anyone computation. And then two people on the research team, Casey Reas and Ben Fry, who were involved with this system, said, “I think this system should be less constrained. It should be color. And why is it limited to 100 by 100?” 

And so they built this system called Processing and they did two things. The first is they built a community center portal around it and the second thing they did was they open-sourced it. And at the time I’m like, “That’s never going to take off. That’s just sort of a — what is this? It’s never going to happen. You should be working on something else.” And that’s why I never really believe anything I say because I could be wrong. I was so glad they didn’t listen to me and they went off and made this Processing thing. And I think there’s a gazillion books about it, there’s communities around it.

MATT: It’s extremely popular, yes.

JOHN: I had to learn from them the power of community because I spent most of my career making software by myself. Everything I made by myself, I designed every book by myself because that’s what I thought people did. The great creators made things by themselves.

MATT: Which is also amazing because, as you know, so many great artists had workshops, architects…

JOHN:  I know, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that Michelangelo didn’t paint all those. 

MATT: Leonardo da Vinci… 

JOHN: I didn’t know that.

MATT: Raphael. Yeah.

JOHN: Well, you know, I grew up with —  

MATT: Today, Jeff Koons.

JOHN: — my family had no education, we had no books, there wasn’t internet, I had no idea.

MATT: The myth of a solo creator might be one of the most corrosive to creativity in general actually.

JOHN: Ohh totally. Oh my gosh. I almost died doing that. I got sick, overworked, I was in the hospital for three weeks. I went over the line, you know?

MATT: You told me about that before to caution me against it.

JOHN: Oh yeah, it happens, it happens. It goes past… 

MATT: I appreciate those cautionary tales. It’s worth noting on this podcast itself is not a solo endeavor.  

JOHN: I agree 100% and I think that the solo creator myth is something that I strive to break through sharing my own embarrassing failures around this. And then when working with teams the number one important thing that I found is respect.

MATT: In working together over these past few years you seem to exhibit an incredible amount of empathy, which is also important for design. Maybe we’ll add that to the list. Or I’ll put it on my list, you don’t have to put it on yours. How do you balance that empathy with that, [so you’re] able to get through these tough things?

JOHN: One of my favorite artworks I’ve made in my life — I don’t have many things I like that I did, but I was in a meeting at MIT where I was having this feeling of, “Whoa, this is feeling really ugh, you know?” I calligraphed on a piece of paper “thicker skin” 75 times. And it’s entitled “Thicker Skin 75 Times.” And it was sold at an auction for charity for UNICEF in Paris. But it’s my proudest piece of artwork because all of my feeling went into that simple drawing to remind myself that it really isn’t about them, it’s about me: Can I have thicker skin?

MATT: It’s a powerful concept.

JOHN: Yes. But it hurts still. It hurts. If there is someone that you really respect and doesn’t respect you, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Does it hurt? Of course. Every time it hurts. Like, “Oh wow.” You let someone down and you don’t forget it.

MATT: But does that close you off to the full range of human emotions?

JOHN: That’s more a combination of thicker skin and gratitude.

MATT: Gratitude, okay, that’s one we haven’t talked about yet.

JOHN: Yes, thicker skin is there if you’re feeling bad and then the gratitude is there because it’s like, “This is an awesome world, like, this is so amazing.” Or you’ll feel gratitude for someone in your past and that activates something good in you. I always think about how I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for my 11th grade high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Wakefield, who took an interest in me as being the number two smart kid in his class. 

The number one kid was so much smarter but came from a really good background whereas I came from a background where I knew nothing. My parents had no education, we didn’t know what the future should be like. I was working after school at my parents’ shop, on the weekends. I hated summers because I had to work there all the time. And so Mr. Wakefield said to me, “You want to go to a good school, you’ve got to have stuff on your application that makes you credible.”

MATT: The extracurriculars?

JOHN: And I was like, “What’s that?” So he said, “We’ll make a science club,” and whatever, so we did that. And then he said, “You need to take a class at the local university over the summer.” And I said, “Oh my parents won’t let me do that because I have to work at the store.” And then Mr. Wakefield came to the store on Saturday, on the weekend, to talk to my parents. 

MATT: Wow.

JOHN: He didn’t have to do that. He was a retired Boeing engineer, he never would venture into the Chinatown area. I mean he didn’t quite fit the whole thing. [laughs] He came and talked to my parents and said, “You want your son to go to a great university, let him take the summer off and do this, give it to him.” And they did. 

MATT: And they did. What did you study that summer?

JOHN: Organic chemistry. I loved chemistry. I was going to become a chemist. I was almost going to be — at MIT the only class I didn’t fail out of in the first year — it was a really bad year — was solid state chemistry. I got one of these rainbow stickers on my tests. Oh it’s the one moment of “Ohh, I’m not an imposter. Should I be here?” I got the golden sticker that one time.

I think of Mr. Wakefield, I think of other people like that who gave me a chance and I feel gratitude towards them. And then it gets easy, like how can I serve you, how can I help you? It’s easier.

MATT: One area we didn’t fully cover was that chemistry for teams or the collaboration for design teams. In a remote setting does anything stand out?

JOHN: Oh my gosh, so this is all about distributed collaboration so I know — exchanges around commentary on code and ASCII text, etcetera, some images, some pull request is initiated, it goes through the shipping — I think of GitHub or GitLab or any of these systems, like a big ship construction site where the ship is going through this gigantic tunnel about to launch out there.

For developers it is highly developed but for designers it’s not developed. That’s why I think things like Figma are so popular because they closely emulate high-network collaborative spaces that remove the abstraction between storage and actual application. [It’s] super reliable, it runs fast and is social to the extent that it’s not actually annoying like Slack can be sometimes. [laughs]

MATT: Why can Slack be annoying?

JOHN: Slack? Oh my gosh. Slack can be annoying for so many reasons. And some people say to me, oh well you’re not Gen Z or Millennial so you don’t get it. I’m sorry, but I think I have been able to Slack with the best of them. 

MATT: I’d say you’re a pretty big Slacker.

JOHN: I know, I try. I try to be a good Slacker. But the feeling I have around a system like Slack is that it moves things so quickly that you can’t think fast enough. And a quanta is so small, the message size is so small. And if the organization is a six-person start up — I think Slack is fantastic, but anything larger — it isn’t about the message, it’s about the feeling. Like, how are you feeling for yourself as a leader of all these people? You need to get a sense of how they feel. And from a Slack instance you can’t get that sense of feeling unless someone is really good at choosing the right emoji, you have no idea, is this the real reaction? You can’t tell. 

MATT: I know creative work — I think creative work requires uninterrupted periods of time, of focus.

JOHN: That’s a good hypothesis. I think you’re right. Yes, you’re right because one of my favorite metaphors is by the late Gordon MacKenzie, and it’s about how he draws a graph — a graph across the — a horizontal line, and then the majority of the line is called “making milk time,” and the end point of the line is “expressing the milk.” 

So a cow is sitting there eating, and you’re like, “Come on, cow, give me milk. Give me milk, cow, give me milk.” And then, “Where’s the milk, cow?” And the cow is just sitting there, chewing the grass. And it’s like, “This cow is not working.” But actually the cow is making the milk but the cow is only rewarded when they express the milk. The example is about how creative work takes eating-grass time and sitting in the sun, otherwise all you get is barely made milk.

MATT: And you’re leading 75-80 people around the world, 24/7. 

JOHN: Mhm.

MATT: How do you find that making-milk time?

JOHN: Because we’re distributed and because we have all kinds of teams that work with designers, I think it’s up to the local zone of leadership to be able to create that time. The best that I can do is a round robin, asking, “What’s up, what are you doing, what are you doing outside of work?” And then someone will say to me, “But that’s not work.” And I’ll say, “It’s your work as a creative person to express yourself.”

So one thing I’m really happy about is our blog, You may remember in the beginning it was hard to get off the ground because some designers felt like, “Well why am I going to blog? What is the point of blogging? What’s that for?” And my point is blogging is good for you. It’s mental health, it’s expression, it’s sharing your process with the world. And when you relate to the world, your standard of quality floats to that value of the world. It’s a market economy of ideas and by putting ourselves out there, you become relevant.

MATT: I’ve noticed, talking about that low-bandwidth communication of text, downsize to Slack.

JOHN: Yeah.

MATT: You internally and now externally are on your YouTube channel.

JOHN: I’m doing YouTube, I’m a YouTuber now. Oh my gosh, I love it.

MATT: Yeah, you create a lot of these videos.

JOHN: I do. 

MATT: And I also perceive that you’ve literally created a lot of videos. You edit a lot, you insert emojis.

JOHN: I make the whole — It is the classical “I make it by myself thank you very much.” [laughs] 

MATT: Yes, so why are you using video to communicate? 

JOHN: Oh my gosh.

MATT: Internally as well. We have so many different tools.

JOHN: Look at you. You’re a WordPress-world person, you’re speaking into a metal thing, holding it with your hand, you’re not typing, you’re audio casting. So you see the diversity of the ecosystem. So YouTube to me represents really what the younger generation has figured out, is [it’s] so much more convenient.

MATT: Should managers at distributed companies or leaders learn video editing?

JOHN: A thousand, thousand percent yes. Because editing skills are ways to communicate in the same way that blogging is, but be careful to add a closed-caption, subtitled track because that makes it even more inclusive for those who have problems understanding spoken English, or for a language barrier.

MATT: One thing that’s cool, and actually one of the features I’m most excited about, is just launching. Our internal video player just launched — 

JOHN: Oh yeah, congrats, yeah that was good.

MATT:  — the speed thing.

JOHN: That’s important.

MATT: Which YouTube has had forever. So you can speed things up or slow them down.

JOHN: Yes.

MATT: I’ve found it’s interesting for meetings. What might be a synchronous status meeting that might take 15 minutes  —

JOHN: Yeah, you could  

MATT: You can get through in ten minutes or eight minutes depending on your speed of processing.

JOHN: Whoa. You can express it.

MATT: Especially people who listen to the podcast, I imagine more than half, if not more, are listening to this sped up right now.

JOHN: That is wild.

MATT: So you actually train yourselves to be able to listen faster. 

JOHN: Oh that’s so interesting.

MATT: And I wonder if I can improve efficiency.

JOHN: Well one thing I’m doing with the team around me is my direct reports, on Monday, and you don’t know this, but Monday what we do is I have a one-minute video requirement. On Monday you post your one-minute video and that’s your stand-up, but it’s async. And that way you can comment on the video. Any extra comment can happen by text. But you can also hear it in full fidelity how someone is experiencing their life and their work.

MATT: That’s really interesting.

JOHN: It’s an async stand-up.

MATT: What are some other things you do in leading the team? I know you have a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday publishing schedule.

JOHN: Yes I do, yes.

MATT: Tell us about that and more. 

JOHN: Okay. One thing I’m really excited about is learning the distributed universe and how hard it is to have a point of reference. If you work at a physical place, you walk in, you can tell the seasons, there is a Monday, there is a Friday. Monday feels so different than a Friday on-prem. So you lose your sense of gravity. There is that Sandra Bullock film — was it Gravity? Where she’s floating in outer space and it’s “Which way is up, which way is down?”

So one thing that I developed after a lot of feedback — I love feedback — every negative or positive feedback I’ll share internally, just with everyone, because it’s easier that way. If people want to talk about me, they have already talked about me because I’ve shared it and it’s easy. But one of the feedback points I got was that I was posting or sharing too much information. And then I realized, well maybe it’s because I haven’t given it structure. So I gave it structure. 

But then I realized that structure isn’t as good as time structure. Because time creates gravity in a distributed organization. So Monday’s post is about the external world, the external realities, Tuesday’s post is about business, and Wednesday’s post is about organization. And I limit myself to posting in that cadence. People expect Monday to be a certain thing, Tuesday, Wednesday. 

The other practice I developed in the team around me is I borrowed a technique developed by Joel Califa, he’s a designer I used to mentor, but now these people who I mentored are like my teacher[s]. It’s a spreadsheet where everyone posts what they’re going to do that week and then they rate how that goal has been achieved during the week. It’s like an old-style Japanese office-memo thing. And the reason I use a Google Sheet and not a special tool is because everyone authenticates. There’s no “Hey can I get a login, can I get a login?”

MATT: Yeah. At our company everyone has a Google account.

JOHN: Yeah, and that Sheet is open to everyone in the company too. I love the idea of transparency that you brought into the Automattic culture or created with your team members over these years. And I think transparency is so important but clarity also is key.

MATT: You said that you love feedback. Positive, negative, you love sharing it.

JOHN: Yes, I do. It’s good.

MATT: What do you think engenders a healthy culture? Does everyone on your team take that same approach? And how do you judge a healthy culture of feedback?

JOHN: I’m laughing because the best feedback is delivered non-anonymously.

MATT: I know you feel very strongly about that.

JOHN: For me I feel strongly about this because when you deliver it non-anonymously you can understand it better. I have two favorite sayings and they’re too long so I can’t memorize them. But one of them is by Coach Pat Summitt, and paraphrasing, “When you’re able to give someone straight feedback you’re showing them the compliment that they will be able to take it.” 

And so when people give me feedback, does it sting that I am no good at something? Yes. I’m like whoa, I thought I was good at that. And I might think they’re wrong. But then when they say how I didn’t achieve something I’m like, “No, you’re right, I could improve there.” If you get it anonymously you don’t know the smell or taste of it. It’s like if I gave you —  

MATT: It’s missing context, for sure, yeah.

JOHN: It’s missing — You have to fill in the rest of the story 80 percent.

MATT: It also seems you can’t get any anonymous follow-up on it?

JOHN: Well you can tell everyone “I got anonymous feedback, this is what I’m doing.” And then you give more power to anonymous people and those who actually give you the — 

MATT: But you share all the feedback, anonymous or not, right?

JOHN: I do, yes. And one of my proudest achievements is the anonymous feedback and the in-name feedback is just as bad. [laughter] 

MATT: So people are comfortable saying it either way.

JOHN: Right, right. 

MATT: You also work a lot on inclusion.

JOHN: Mhm.

MATT: That’s from a position of privilege as well.

JOHN: Absolutely and I —  

MATT: You’re very powerful and you’re John Maeda. 

JOHN: People think that I’m something. An octopus, like, whatever. But that’s why a lot of what I do is reiterate that I’m only as good as what I do now.

MATT: How do you make people who might feel that they don’t have that privilege to give things to you directly, how do you make them comfortable with that? 

JOHN: I haven’t cracked that one yet but it’s on my list of… how do I invite them into the fact that my only goal is to serve others and I cannot do that unless — think of all the user research. Unless I have high-fidelity user research, how am I going to improve? Maybe my goal is to center on that concept with more people that I do believe in agile development, I’m a computational system, organic, [laughter] and how am I going to iterate and improve if I don’t get really high-fidelity feedback? 

Maybe I might become much more open to delegation of that. Because there are some people who feel that I’m in a privileged position and some people feel privileged enough to go straight with me. Like if you don’t feel comfortable with me, talk to them and I could just anoint that role —  

MATT: But then you lose the fidelity.

JOHN: I do. And then I also do recognize that there are those who will always feel something. And it’s often not about me, it’s someone like me that in their past [with whom] they had a bad experience. So I totally understand why there would be no reason that they feel that they could be candid with me, because something bad happened in the past.

MATT: Are you also that candid with everyone you work with?

JOHN: Am I that candid? It depends. 

MATT: Can everyone handle that kind of raw — 

JOHN: That’s the challenge of getting older for me. When I was younger, I would tell everyone everything I thought. Oh my gosh, people couldn’t stand me, for good reason. I mean it was okay, I forgive them. Actually I hope that they forgive me. I would just tell them what I think and I was direct all the time. 

And then I realized wow, this is not working. This is not working. I believe in the “I’ll show you respect by telling you what I think.” But it’s like, “No, actually he doesn’t want to hear what I had to say. Whoops.” So I changed. 

MATT: Why is it bad if people are doing the same to you, not giving you the direct feedback?

JOHN: With people who I develop a strong working relationship with, then they are the ones who ask me, “Can I get your feedback.”

MATT: So conversely they feel more comfortable with the raw feedback from you?

JOHN: Yeah. And some instances, some people want that, some people can, quote, “handle it,” which means that they were privileged in some way where that became — where that’s doable. But there are some who just had a really difficult life that they just don’t want to handle that and it just hurts them in a way, it doesn’t help them. And so I’ve become much more conscious of “Huh, how do I adapt to what you need?”

MATT: In design you are also overseeing everything that goes out to all of our users.

JOHN: Mhm.

MATT: Everything we’ve been saying about feedback is pretty universal. Is there anything specific to distributed [work] that you want to throw in there? 

JOHN: In a distributed organization I think that the value of it is that you can now control your life differently. I know so many people [for whom] distributed work has been able to make them better parents, better children to their parents as caregivers. Them coming from that point of view is the beginning of recognizing that this is an amazing job to have. And do you enjoy that aspect of those jobs? Yes. Great. Now what kind of work are we doing and how can we safeguard that wonderful thing that you are able to do because of this paradigm. 

That’s what interests me the most, is that it’s a really special thing to be able to work distributed, and if you can start from the respect of that versus the wonder of it, then you have hard conversations about, “Now what should we do with the work to safeguard that?”

MATT: Tell me about your ideal work space.

JOHN: My ideal work space — I’m still QWERTY, we’re talking typewriter-speak. How do you say the other one?

MATT: Dvorak?

JOHN: Thank you. I don’t know how to pronounce it. Dvorak. I love a Kinesis keyboard because it has helped me I think —  

MATT: Those are the curved ones, right?

JOHN: It’s the curved one. In my late twenties I had really bad RSI. It’s the way I hold my body, but that really helps. I like to have that nearby. I like it super quiet. I don’t like to put headphones on, it’s a bit constraining.

MATT: Do you put music on?

JOHN: No music, no music, but hopefully art around to distract me.

MATT: Besides the Kinesis, any must-have equipment? I think you use a custom camera, right?

JOHN: Oh my gosh, I have fallen in love with this new thing. You know how headset experimentation is so important for distributed? It’s almost like a hairstyle problem. I found that in-ear musician-quality microphone monitor headphones, they’re great because they —  

MATT: Did you do the custom?

JOHN: There is this memory tip cushion thing that you can get that is super comfortable, sound-isolating. For audio quality it’s fantastic. 

MATT: That’s amazing.

JOHN: I love good microphones. Podcast-quality microphones, the sound quality is so much better. I do love the Sennheiser headset for sound-isolation quality. Like, we can be talking and I’d be in the airport, and you’re like, I don’t hear anything.

MATT: Oh yeah. 

JOHN: That’s bizarre how well that works.

MATT: Noise-cancelling not for you ears, for the mic. A noise-cancelling mic.

JOHN: That’s bizarre how good that is. But I do always feel a little embarrassed wearing it. You have no problem being in a restaurant wearing it. [laughter]

MATT: No, you look like you’re in a call center or something.

JOHN: I can’t go there. You wear it all the — I can’t do that. Yeah.

MATT: Zoom, Hangouts, Skype? What’s your go-to?

JOHN: Oh my gosh I can’t stand all of them. I like audio-only if I can. I like phone, yeah. 

MATT: Hmm. So you make phone calls?

JOHN: I make phone calls, yeah. It feels good. 

MATT: What’s your number-one tip for getting things done?

JOHN: Is if you’re lucky to have a good assistant, and if you are less lucky, having any good to-do note system, they always work. So the competency of making a list, oh, so good.

MATT: One thing I love about working with you is you’re go, go, go. 

JOHN: Aww.

MATT: What is your drive there?

JOHN: My parents worked so hard all their lives. I think about my father. He’s 84 years old, he’s hunched over, he can’t stand up straight, because he was carrying so many heavy things all his life. My mother, because of the cold water involved in tofu — her hands — she can’t feel anything. They worked extraordinarily hard. They are an example that was set that tells me I should do more. 

MATT: What are some of your habits that contribute to that, good and bad habits?

JOHN: I’m not good at vacationing. As you know, it’s not my forte. 

MATT: That was a goal for the year. 

JOHN: You gave me feedback and I took it, and I was like, “Okay, I’ll do this vacation thing.”

MATT: Although I think you worked the whole time.

JOHN: I had to get stuff done. [laughter] But vacation, not good at. I don’t read enough. You read a lot. You’re always reading. I don’t read enough.

MATT: You probably read all day. Do you mean books?

JOHN: Books, books. I’m consuming information. But I want to get good at reading books.

MATT: And finally, 20 years from now, what percentage of jobs do you think will be distributed?

JOHN: I think for developers, I think it will become a norm. I think for whatever we think of for designers it will be 50/50. Fifty for designers who are doing much more of the traditional creative, emotional type of work that requires more high-bandwidth collaboration, but it’s going to be expensive, that work. But the other half is all going to be computational.

MATT: Well, thank you so much, John.

JOHN: Thank you. This was fun.

MATT: That was John Maeda. You can follow him on Twitter at @johnmaeda. That’s J-O-H-N M-A-E-D-A. 

Slack is a tool that’s so widely used it feels ubiquitous in the tech world. And when everyone uses a tool, sometimes it can be difficult to imagine how it might be improved, or how a different tool might be better. It’s a privilege to hear someone like John Maeda — someone who has spent much of his long career thinking about digital interfaces — dissect the technology and talk about the way that it works, and where it falls short.

Hearing about the live-video-chat-meets-virtual-whiteboard tool John helped create in the 90s makes me think about how distributed design teams might use that today. It’s a great reminder that devices and interfaces can always be iterated on, which is both a great lesson from computational design and one of the great pleasures of building digital tools.

John has a humble, thoughtful approach to distributed collaboration, and thinks about how humans operate as much as how computers do. When you’re working with people across the globe, sometimes the best collaborative tools are the oldest, like listening, gratitude, and empathy. 

John’s time with Automattic will be coming to a close soon — he’s accepted an exciting new role with consulting firm Publicis Sapient — but I hope that his thoughtful and humble approach to distributed collaboration will live on in our design team, and I look forward to him contributing to Automattic as an adviser.

Next time on the Distributed podcast, we’ll be talking with Leo Widrich. Leo helped build a successful distributed startup called Buffer, and was living the Bay Area dream. But he felt something was missing from his life, so he quit his job and turned to ancient wisdom and mindfulness to achieve emotional resilience. We’ll hear Leo’s story, and learn how distributed workers can avoid the psychological pitfalls that are unique to working remotely.

Thanks for joining us. 

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